31 Days of Hell: Session 9 (2001) - Reviewed

Before cult horror film writer-director Brad Anderson shocked moviegoers with an emaciated and skeletal Christian Bale in the 2004 thriller The Machinist, he took his Sony 24P HD video cameras deep into the heart of the abandoned (and eventually demolished) Danvers State Hospital concerning an asbestos abatement team who gets more than they bargained for after accepting the job to clean the abandoned mental asylum.  

Despite being micro-budget with largely unknown actors save for David Caruso and Josh Lucas, this ensemble psychological horror piece presents the derelict mental asylum without additional dressing, proving you don’t need to build an expensive haunted house set when such a real world goldmine of terror is there to be exploited for the sake of the camera.  

Much like Kubrick’s take on The Shining, the building itself becomes an adversarial character informing the fear its denizens feel walking around inside it and some of the creepiest moments in the film simply depict characters walking through hallways adorned with now defunct equipment for patient treatment.  While far from perfect with sparse scares and some moments of rusty acting, the setting which was reportedly unsafe for the cast and crew to traverse in some areas of the building is too good to be true and like Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects it reminds young horror moviegoers looking to break into the film scene that sometimes the best settings for horror films aren’t assembled but found.

The cast of characters are your typical gaggle of disgruntled stereotypes.  You have a law school dropout, a pothead, a nyctophobic, an estranged husband and so on.  Like most horror movies, the setup is that you’re waiting for something or someone to start picking these guys off as they plunge further into the dark corridors of the haunted building.  One of the film’s wisest moves is that it takes the same regard for the eerie phenomenon Robert Wise’s The Haunting did where you’re really not sure how much of what’s happening to the crew is a real paranormal event or just a hallucination, leaving you with more than one way to read it with neither interpretation canceling out the other.  Save for a gory and violent encounter near the end, Session 9 mostly relies on implication with fear of dark shadows and a collection of tape recordings with a patient who had dissociative identity disorder, letting viewers listen more than look.  In one of the film’s most frightening scenes, a worker wanders off into a dark tunnel with his fading flashlight as his only sense of sight which catches a glimpse of what appears to be a…shadow, spirit or figment?  While the payoff to this scene is nowhere near as terrifying once its later revealed, I still get the chills seeing a faceless silhouette step into the soft beam of flashlight.  This is also a movie which preys heavily on lobotomy and our fear of needles with some grisly images that are tough to look at.

The ambiguity in the first half of Session 9 creates a palpable tension and preys on our own fears of working in a dangerous construction cleanup field.  Think the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs as a psychological horror thriller with a setting whose past is equally if not more frightening than the film it takes place in.  The insane asylum funhouse of horror is a horror trope that itself has been beaten to death in things like the remake of House on Haunted Hill, Gothika, Grave Encounters, The Ward and the aptly named Asylum, yet few of them have managed to sink their fangs into the real deal.  

It’s very easy to make a mental institution genre thriller but not many of them managed to infiltrate a real one with a genuinely frightening past behind it that is as unnerving to watch as it was for the filmmakers to make.  Although I still prefer Brad Anderson’s following film The Machinist to this for being one of the few genuinely horrifying psychological thrillers and touting a more polished visual palette, Session 9 is a good stepping stone which provides a glimpse into our eerie past of what we considered to be “modern medicine”.

- Andrew Kotwicki